John Norman is rebuilding his hometown—one old, dilapidated structure at a time
John Norman should be way too tired to talk with me today. It is early September and he has just returned from a time-warping, brain-busting, two-week odyssey to Indonesia and Singapore. He’d traveled there to make a critical, final, this-is-it pitch to the powers that are in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to convince them to bless Discovery Aspiring GeoPark—the half-a-billion-years-in-the-creation unique swath of geology and geography that is the upper-half of Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula—as an official Global Geopark.
A what? UNESCO defines its global geoparks as “unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development, [giving] local people a sense of pride in their region and strengthen[ing] their identification with the area.”
Bonavista? Check, check, check.
But there’s more, and the potential even greater. “The creation of innovative local enterprises, new jobs and high-quality training courses is stimulated [by the geopark designation] as new sources of revenue are generated through geo-tourism, while the geological resources of the area are protected.”
Norman, 34, who chairs the Discovery Aspiring GeoPark Inc. board, enthuses it’s a “big deal. People are so excited because they know the brand recognition that UNESCO has… [It] can’t do anything but improve the situation even more so for the peninsula.”
Winning UNESCO’s approval—as big a deal as it is—is far from the only fish on John Norman’s plate today. He is also the mayor of Bonavista (population 4,000 and growing); president of its local chamber of commerce (the third largest in Newfoundland, he tells me, boasting 2,200 business owners and their employees); as well as a director of the local theatre and a dozen or so (“down from 20”) not-for-profit organizations. But even that doesn’t count all time he will need in the next days and weeks to devote to catching up and then keeping up with the other six inter-connected private businesses he runs.
No surprise he returned home to find hundreds of emails waiting in his inbox.
And yet, he answers my questions today—generously, enthusiastically—as if he has nothing better to do with his day than extol the virtues of the place he calls home. “I sometimes do three-hour talks,” he confides, “and people don’t walk out.” I can believe that. His story, the story of Bonavista, is worth hearing. And, for anyone who cares about the vitality and future of Atlantic Canada’s rural communities and lifestyles, worth paying attention to.
According to its official history, Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot to thee and me) spotted Cape Bonavista, the first landfall of his own new-found land, on June 24, 1497, after a weeks-long, wind-washed, storm-tossed journey from Europe. “Oh, Buon Vista” (or, more prosaically again, “oh, happy sight”), he is reputed to have shouted to his crew before sailing past seeking a more sheltered landing place. Et voilà—with a little help from local-speak: today’s Bonavista.
Bonavista, as Legion Magazine described it in a 1999 article, is “the most easterly town in North America, sitting at the narrow tip of the Bonavista Peninsula where Bonavista and Trinity bays converge. With the North Atlantic crashing upon a coastline of steep, jagged cliffs, rugged outcrops of semi-immersed rock, wind-swept beaches and no semblance of a natural shelter for boats, it gives the impression that only the most daring, or foolhardy, could have chosen the place.”
But historically, there were also, as the song says, “lots of fish in Bonavist’ harbour,” so fishermen flocked there from the west of England and the southeastern counties of Ireland. They fished, they settled, they raised families, they prospered. “Bonavista’s historical significance,” explained Legion, “stems primarily from its position as the largest, one of the oldest, and, arguably, the most prosperous inshore fishing town in Newfoundland.”
By the early 19th century, Bonavista—known as Newfoundland’s cod capital—was home to a large seafood production centre and boasted a population of 5,000 “poorer fishing families, middling fishing families, prosperous fishing families, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, sailors, captains, clerks, clerics, merchants, and other traders and shopkeepers.” Not to forget a stable of creative architects and master builders eager to design and build homes and commercial buildings for the citizenry that were not only distinctive (“hipped-roof, salt-box roof, low-gable, steep-gable, single-front-peak-gable, double-front-peak-gable, double-piercing-dormer-gable, and mansard-roof houses”) but also built to last.
In the end, many of those buildings not only outlasted the cod fishery but unintentionally gave Bonavista its second chance to make a first impression on the world in the 21st century.
John Norman remembers sitting at the kitchen table watching television on the night of July 2, 1992, the day the federal government announced it was shutting down the island’s cod fishery and tossing 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work. “I remember silence,” he says now.
His father, a local doctor, and his mother, a teacher, weren’t directly affected. But the life of everyone in the Bonavista Peninsula was indirectly sideswiped. He was seven years old. He remembers kids crying in the classroom. Over the coming weeks and months and years, he noticed as fellow students suddenly disappeared from the classroom, from his life, as their families moved away in search of better opportunities.
Although Bonavista itself was somewhat protected—the local fish plant had already begun to diversify from cod to shellfish, and never closed—the town also served as the service centre for the whole of the peninsula, and as the larger economy cratered, Bonavista contracted. The population of 5,000 became 4,000, then 3,200. At one point, there were over 200 vacant buildings in town, many of them historic. The curtain fell on the Garrick, the oldest operating theatre and cinema in Newfoundland. The town’s main street shut down. John Norman remembers walking down Bonavista’s main drag at night in his final year of high school. “There was nothing to do. It was the proverbial dustbowl.” In the mid-1990s, you could have bought a fine old house in Bonavista for $5,000, but what would you have done to make a living there and then?
You may be surprised to learn John Norman wasn’t interest ed in following the last-one-out-turn-off-the-light leavers. While still in high school, he had joined the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation, chaired by a town enthusiast and archivist named David Bradley. The group had begun what it called an asset inventory of the town’s heritage, which counted up over 1,000 tangible historic properties in the community. “There was the oldest ‘this’ in Newfoundland and the first ‘that,’” Norman tells me. His personal interest, however, wasn’t so much in the history—“I’ve never taken a history course”—but in leveraging that history to goose “community revitalization.”
When he graduated from high school, Norman’s goal was to get his real estate licence and begin dealing in what he considered Bonavista’s under-valued assets. His parents’ goal was different. They urged him to enrol in university. He did, studying the “hard sciences,” then earning an education degree at Memorial University in St. John’s. He was even accepted into med school but turned it down. After spending summers back home, his heart never strayed from Bonavista, 300 km north of the capital.
While still a student in St. John’s, he ran in a by-election for a seat on Bonavista council, returning home on the weekends to campaign. “I knocked on 1,650 doors in three weekends in the dead of winter.” He won over three other candidates. He was just 22.
Two years later, in 2009, he and his then-partner, Leann Pardy, also a Bonavista native, bought an 1880s French cottage with its own root cellar, carpentry shop—“everything but an outhouse”—for $21,000. “Everyone had doubts when we started gutting it,” Norman told Maclean’s in 2015. “It looked like a disaster [but] I could see it, could see every feature in my mind.”
While they renovated, Norman taught at the local school. “I knew deep down I would not be in education forever,” he says. He finally took that real estate exam, passed and launched Bonavista Living, a company with ambitions of transforming the town’s stock of vacant but historic buildings into living, life-filled upper-end and affordable housing, commercial buildings and vacation retreats. Buy. Restore. Sell. Invest in a next property. And a next. Repeat.
He calls it a “simplistic idea,” but it’s worked. Today, he tells me, Bonavista Living owns 70 properties in and around Bonavista, “not counting the ones that have already sold.”
John Norman’s real estate ventures (and Bonavista’s prospects) expanded exponentially in 2013 after Norman met Mark Dickson and his wife, Chantal. Chantal Dickson had lived in Newfoundland as a child; her sister was born there. Although the Dicksons called Louisiana home—Mark ran a family-owned pharmaceutical company and had begun to dabble in technology, including funding startups—they vacationed in Newfoundland and spent time in Bonavista where John Norman offered his enthusiastic Bonavista visitor tours during the summers.
“We formed a friendship on many levels,” Norman tells me. The Dicksons home-schooled their own children, so Norman volunteered one summer to teach them earth sciences. Naturally, Norman also told Mark and Chantal about Bonavista Living, about his dreams of revitalizing the community, about his vision of creating a business model more focused on growth and sustainability than on profit.
Norman says Dickson—who doesn’t do media interviews and didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this story— “was taken by that social lens, that it wasn’t just about making money. He said, ‘I’d love to participate and invest in the company.’” And he did.
Dickson’s ongoing investment and involvement, Norman is quick to acknowledge, became crucial to creating what he calls the “perfect storm” that is the Bonavista success story.
Dickson wasn’t the only key player, of course. There were also “the two Davids,” as Norman refers to them: David Bradley, the archivist who had catalogued the community’s historic assets 20 years ago, set the town’s future in an historic context and is now the chair of the board of the revitalized, re-opened Garrick Theatre; and David Hiscock, the Town of Bonavista’s general manager who began as its clerk at a time when the town couldn’t turn on its street lights because it couldn’t pay its bills and who has since guided the town—through “really good management”—to its place as one of the most economically successful, growing and prosperous small towns in all of Atlantic Canada.
And then, of course, there is that other key figure: John Norman himself, Bonavista’s this-generation promoter and visionary.
Bonavista’s community leaders have long understood the future they didn’t want—one filled with footloose call centres that would set up subsidized shop in their community and then disappear in the blink of a cancelled contract, or big box stores that offered low wages and few benefits to their employees or their community… (At the time, it should be admitted, no big box stores were knocking on Bonavista’s door at the time… At the time.)
Bonavista was also lucky. Unlike many Atlantic Canadian communities, it never suffered a man-made disaster or massive fire that ripped out its infrastructure. Its reinvention began with its heritage—that inventory of dilapidated but historic structures on which to build a future—intact.
The goal became to create a sustainable year-round community from that base. Start with tourism, of course, but push at the boundaries of the season: from two months a year in the beginning to five-and-a-half today, with the goal (remember that geopark) of a seven-month-a-year tourist season by 2025.
In 2013, Norman founded Bonvista Creative “to foster and promote new and unique businesses that will contribute to the local economy, thereby enhancing the community by offer[ing] commercial space for crafts people, artisans, food vendors and many other professional services not currently operating in the area.” One of its divisions, Bonavista Creative Workshop, employs highly skilled heritage carpenters to build wooden doors and windows for Bonavista Living restorations. The Workshop has become so successful it now ships all over the province, and has a backlog of orders.
In 2018, the chamber of commerce—which had quadrupled in size in just five years—opened The Commons, a business hub on the second floor of the chamber’s office on Church Street. The first of its kind outside St. John’s, The Commons offers a co-working space, printing and scanning services, meeting rooms and wifi to help incubate fledgling business. “It’s going to be a central hub of innovation, incubation, collaboration and a lot of the basic—and maybe not-so-basic—supports that a business or entrepreneur may want,” Norman told the CBC.
All those efforts seem to be paying off. Thirty-one new companies set up shop in Bonavista last year, Norman boasts, 19 more so far this year. “And no closures.”
Many of those new business builders, who “bring jobs with them,” are millennials. The average age of last year’s crop, Norman tells me, was just 33. And their businesses are forward-looking and outward-facing. At least seven local firms, in fact, are now “shipping out product in February,” expanding and growing their work forces as they develop export markets.
Some of Bonavista’s new enterprises were created by here-from-aways, newcomers who came, saw and liked what they saw so much they put down roots.
Paul Babineau, for example, moved to Bonavista from Boston nine years ago and now owns a popular fish store called the Salt Box Specialty Market. Sarah and Adam Rochacewich, mid-30s Torontonians, began traveling to the Bonavista peninsula to holiday in 2008. “You start coming back again and again, then you imagine making a go of it, wondering, ‘How do you support yourself in another part of the country’s small town?’” Sarah told Mic, an online magazine aimed at millennials. They found a way. By 2016, they’d settled permanently, and now own two businesses, Aunt Sarah’s Chocolate Shop in Trinity and Sweet Rock Ice Cream in Bonavista.
But others, like chef Katie Hayes, are proving you can go home again too. She grew up in Bonavista—she was a classmate and friend of John Norman—but left immediately after high school. “I didn’t see myself in rural Newfoundland,” she admits, “though I was never headed for New York City.”
She eventually trained as a chef, then ended up working, cooking and traveling in Ireland where she fell in love with her now-husband, Shane, who worked in sales for multinational technology companies. Later, Shane also fell in love with Newfoundland, so they moved to St. John’s where Katie found work at Raymond’s, a popular high-end restaurant.
But when Katie went on maternity leave and her husband dealt with “Canadian residency crap,” they decided it was time to “do something for ourselves.” They moved to Bonavista where her parents still lived, developed a business plan—“our accountant advised against it”—and opened the Bonavista Social Club in a furniture store her father had once operated.
“We didn’t call it a restaurant in the beginning,” she says. “We kept it pretty vague.” First, they sold bread baked in their “$45,000 wood-fired oven,” discovered that wouldn’t pay the bills, diversified to include pizza, featuring ingredients from their garden. Eventually, they added salad, burgers, then dessert, got a liquor licence, opened a patio. “At some point, we realized it was a restaurant.” Bonavista Social Club is now so popular—its mooseburger with partridgeberry ketchup was chosen as one of the best burgers in Canada by Reader’s Digest—you need reservations to get a table.
Although the restaurant is still May-to-October seasonal— during the winters, Katie teaches and Shane takes on contract work—they have “happily” become year-round residents. “We used to tell ourselves we could jump out at any time.” With three young kids and a booming business, that’s no longer true.
Thanks to all the new tax revenues from the influx of newcomers, the town’s annual budget continues bouncing upward (10–12 per cent year-over-year) making it possible for council to designate 20 per cent of the budget for culture, recreation and the arts.
“I can’t describe how important the reopening of the Garrick Theatre was in attracting young families to the area,” Norman says of the stunningly restored, superbly acoustic-ed, 200-seat performance centre that now hosts live shows, film festivals and cinema nights. Thanks to the Garrick, local residents can often enjoy amenities—an evening of opera as just one example—typically reserved for urbanites.
But wait, there’s more. When the local Silver Blades figure skating club staged its ice show at the local Cabot Stadium in 2016, the star attraction was none other than world figure skating champion Elvis Stojko. This summer, Jamaican-born, Toronto-based artist Camille Turner brought her Afronautic Research Lab, “a counter archive, countering what is presented as truth” about Newfoundland’s connections to slavery, to the gallery at Mockbeggar Plantation, the provincial historic site in a restored merchant premises.
And, of course, there’s also all the requisite organized soccer, hockey and other sports kids need and families want.
Mic, that online site for millennials, recently featured a story about Bonavista in which it suggests the community has become a beacon for what it calls hicksters (hipsters and hicks), “from all over the country who are turning their backs on the big city to find a different quality of life.”
Which is, of course, exactly what John Norman had in mind from the beginning.
Surprisingly, for a man Maclean’s once labeled as “The Baron of Bonavista,” John Norman’s own political career has had its ups and downs. He lost his first bid for re-election as a councillor to a popular fishers’ union leader, but then defeated her two years ago when they ran against one another for the mayor’s chair. This time, Norman won. What changed? In part, Norman believes he won because he’d shown the community he could make his vision reality. “I’d created 50 jobs, helped launch 13 businesses.” He took his election win as a “ringing endorsement” of his approach to development. And continued apace.
While he says he’s been courted by federal and provincial parties to run for them, he “can’t leave” yet, partly because there is still much to be done and partly because he worries that much of what he has achieved to date would “fall apart” without him. He knows that’s changing as more and more of the newcomers assume positions of leadership in the community. And he’ll be happy to relinquish the reins. “Hallelujah!” he laughs.
For now though, there’s more than enough work for him and everyone else in the community to do.
Two nights before our interview, for example, Bonavista council turned down a $22-million development (a proposed 50-room oceanfront hotel with its own helipad) because councillors decided it didn’t fit with the community’s vision of Bonavista’s past-embedded future.
“Ten years ago,” Norman marvels, “councillors would have been projectile vomiting if they’d had to turn down a project like that.”
It probably won’t be the last time they’ll have to stare down someone else’s idea of their future. Now that Bonavista is again prosperous, even big box stores have begun at least sniffing around.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of other rural communities in Newfoundland—and beyond—would like to know how to duplicate Bonavista’s success. “I tell people, ‘you can’t cookie-cutter this.’” The Bonavista story, he says, is “a perfect storm:” an intact heritage, community leaders willing to build on its solid base and, of course, a deep-pocketed investor-benefactor to help speed the process along.
Mostly though, he says, “you have to respect yourself.” And understand where you’re coming from. And where you’re going.
Speaking of which, what about that proposed UNESCO Global Geopark?
The meeting in Asia in early September was the culmination of Bonavista’s 13-year campaign to win UNESCO’s seal of approval. It began with grassroots’ organizing, a first-step submission to convince a Canadian national committee to endorse their project, followed by a formal application to UNESCO and then a July visit from a UNESCO international site evaluation team.
The evaluators spent three full days evaluating the proposed geopark’s stunning 1,150 square km, exploring its 280 kilometres of coastline, visiting its 27 communities and checking out its 10 geosite areas. The evaluators examined everything—“our geological heritage, the assets themselves, how they tie to our cultural heritage, our general infrastructure, the education piece, the public awareness piece … the ongoing academic research.”
After that, the evaluators went away to prepare their final recommendations they presented at the September meeting Norman attended.
How did it go, I ask?
The final decision has already been made, he tells me, but it won’t be announced officially until April 2020.
He already knows the outcome. “We had to sign a confidentiality agreement,” Norman confides.
So, I guess you can’t tell me what they decided, I press.
There is a pause. “I’m quite positive,” he says. And laughs.
John Norman is. Quite. Positive. •